The 24-Year-Old Woman Who Walked Across Canada

Day 231, breaking in Pinawa Dam Provincial Park. #tctrail #exploremanitoba #getoutside

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Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which a woman decides to walk the 4,265km-long Pacific Coastal Trail, might have inspired a new generation of women to tackle huge walks in a bid to find themselves, but one walker had already set out to do another, much longer, trek by the time Reese Witherspoon's film adaptation had hit the big screen.
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Sarah Jackson had just finished her sociology degree when she embarked on one of the most gruelling anti-gap years imaginable: walking Canada's the Great Trail. Over 10,000km later, though, she’s smiling. Now, aged 24, she’s become the first woman to walk across Canada from coast to coast. (She still hasn’t read or seen Wild, though).
She often walked with a partner, and admits she took breaks to go home for Christmas, but has essentially spent two years living outdoors, out of a backpack, spending much of her time alone. Sarah explains what led her to it, what it feels like to finish, and how the walk has changed her.
In previous interviews you have said the walk just sort of “happened” and I just wanted to ask, how did you start doing the walk?
I had been interested in the idea of a long trek for a really long time. My uncle and I hiked the Camino de Santiago when I was a little younger so it was something that I had wanted for a while. I looked into a couple of the long-distance hiking trails in the States but I was working in a hostel for a little bit and I realised I was more interested I think in staying in Canada because there's so much of the country that I didn't know. As soon as I stumbled across the trail I knew it was something I was interested in.
Then I was wrapping up school and had an opportunity to move back in with my parents and save some money. But at first I didn't know I'd do the whole thing. I thought I'd do a section of it and see how I enjoyed it. Then I kept enjoying it and kept walking.
In Wild, a major life event inspired the heroine to start walking; did you have anything similar?
Nope! Some young people take a gap year or set out travelling post-university, and I chose this. While I do think that seeing and understanding other parts of the world can be incredibly valuable, for me, at the start I looked at this as a chance to have a period of self-reflection while also making my footprint a little smaller.
You said accepting help has been a big lesson for you.
More than anything it's just been developing a confidence maybe in my own ability or knowing I can do something or pursue something. I suppose it's like anything, if you set out to do something and you do it then it's something you can look back on and say, “I was able to do that, I was able to keep moving forward”. And this is like a really direct representation of that. I don't usually look at it that way until a little bit later, though. I try and take things as they come a little bit. And I think maybe that makes it easier: focusing on what you have at hand.
Did you have an example of a time when you had some help that you really needed?
When my Achilles tendon swelled up it was like I had a golf ball on the back of my ankle. I was in the middle of the prairies and I knew I had to get into a city to get it looked at, but there were no buses, so at that point I had to go to a stranger and knock on their door and ask if there was some way of getting to town. In the end he gave me a ride.
It sounds like you're quite self-aware of how you’re feeling – has that helped?Absolutely. Even if I'm trying to live in a moment and solely be in that moment I think it's also come in terms of, that, not everything is permanent. If I'm not feeling great in a certain circumstance, it's not always going to be that way. But memory's a funny thing and you just forget that sometimes.
Once, we walked through a few days of really cold and wet weather and we were joking because I think you go through periods when you're like, “I'm so wet that I'll never not be wet, I'll always be wet, I'll never be dry again”. And it feels like that. That was coming through part of Nova Scotia, through Cape Breton. We were in the bush, the tent was wet and all of our clothes were wet, and we were walking in wet shoes that were completely waterlogged. Your hands are permanently wrinkled. It feels like you've been in a bath for hours, but no: it's just the rain.
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Are you looking forward to having a break?
Admittedly, I've had a couple of breaks from the trail but in those instances, almost as soon as I stopped walking I'd be itching for the trail. I'd spend a day or two at home, and it was really nice to see family and friends, but I'd miss the trail so much.
But I think being away from family and friends started to take its toll a little bit, and I missed having access to books and music and all of that. It's a lot to live out of a bag and to live outside for so long.
Do you have any advice for women who want to do long walks on their own but don’t know where to start?
How I feel here is not any different from how I feel living as a woman at home. Carrying a safety device is nice but I don't know if it gave me confidence. I think it gave my mum confidence, though, and it made me happy that my mum was happy.
At the same time, I know it's different for everyone. For example, I'm a white woman walking across Canada and I know my experience could be very different if I wasn't. Just do what you're comfortable with. Putting yourself in a position where you're going to feel really anxious all the time will colour your experience in a negative way.
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I also started out walking with someone and so maybe jumping in like that was easier. But that's just me – it doesn't mean it would have been the same for anyone else.
Did you ever feel lonely?
Not often – maybe because I had so many people join me along the way. But even during parts I've been by myself, I didn't often feel lonely. Alone, yes; lonely, no. I think sometimes it's easier to feel lonely in groups of people: there's a feeling of lacking connection with the folks you're around that leaves you aching for intimacy, or a disconnect leaves you longing for someone to understand you. That is something that I've never felt when I've been walking.
What's one way you kept yourself entertained?
I'm definitely doing a 21st century version of this journey. Sometimes I walk in the quiet, but on other occasions I listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts. I call my friends and family. If I have a friend on the trail, sometimes we'll play cards, or make up games. Mostly, though, I spend a lot of time with my thoughts.
You can follow Sarah on Instagram here.
The 24,000-km Trans Canada Trail is expected to be completed later this year, to mark the anniversary of Canadian independence.
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